Help! How Do I Use Microphones??!

Okay. So you know that microphones are devices you put near your mouth to make your voice louder. Beyond that, there be dragons.

So let’s bust through seven common mic Q’s. Then sail on, writers!

#1. Won’t using a mic make me seem stiff and formal?
If I hear another author get on stage and ask, “Do I really need this thing?” I’m gonna…
Look. A mic will be whatever you make it. Is JT stiff and formal? Is Eddie Izzard?

A mic just makes you audible. And hearing you is the purpose of a Public Reading. Therefore, Mic=Good.

“Do I really need this thing?” translates to, “I’m vaguely afraid of the mic, and I feel stupid when I use it. So I’d like to avoid doing so, while coming off as ‘cool.'”
 You’re not fooling anyone, and the people in the back row will pay for your choice. So use the mic AND be laid back! Everyone will forget it’s there.

#2. What if I’m too loud??
Hearing your amplified voice might be alarming at first… but only to you. To your audience, it’s nothing! Nevertheless, many readers back away from their mics in order to “turn down the volume” of their own voices, thus rendering themselves inaudible to half the room.
 The fact that your voice is louder than it usually is in your head does not mean that the people in the back row can hear you. Don’t be so shy that you rob your attendees of a good reading.

#3. How should I hold a mic??
Like this. (See #5 for caveats.)

Don’t wrap your hand around the top of it. (Unless you’re Jay-Z.)

Don’t hold it against your torso. It’s not a necktie.

#4. Should I lick it? put my lips on it? other?
Well, no.
Don’t eat the microphone.


DON’T put it against your lips.

DO keep it about 4-6 inches from your mouth.

#5. Do I use all mics the same way?
Actually, no. But don’t worry – you’ll probably only come across two kinds:
DYNAMIC MICS. You’ll see these most often, usually a Shure 57 or 58 (or knock-off thereof):

This type of mic is built to reduce background noise… But that means it needs you up close & intimate. No room for fear! Love that mic!

But um, don’t eat it. The closer it gets to your mouth, the more low-end sounds it picks up.
What does that mean?
Well, if you’ve ever turned the bass all the way up on your car stereo while listening to NPR, you know that Terry‘s voice gets all muddy and indistinct. The same thing happens when this mic gets too close to your mouth.
So: Put a bit of space between your mouth and the mic: the width of your hand, or 4-6-ish inches.

CONDENSOR MICS are the other mics you’ll see, usually on podiums.

Condensors are very sensitive… which is why they can sit atop a podium a foot from your face and still hear you.
So: Don’t try to adjust or reposition the mic! Doing so will just make all kinds of noise. And don’t lean down toward it; you don’t need to. It will hear you. Relax.

A drawback: condensors pick up EVERYTHING. Your drink of water, knocks on the podium desk, paper shuffles… Even a gentle touch of the mic will sound like thunder. You’ve been warned.

Also: beware of Feedback! Since condensors are sensitive, they’re more likely to cause that crazy shrieking sound. (Feedback tips below!)

No matter what kind of mic, don’t blow in it! Don’t tap or thump on it! You could totally damage it. If you want to know whether it’s working, speak into it. Check one two.

#6. What if it doesn’t work right?!
We’ve all been to readings where the mic won’t turn on, or there’s a bad buzz in the speakers, or terrible feedback. These issues distract from the reading, and/or make it impossible to hear.
What to do?

Mainly, dont fly by the seat of your pants! 

The person operating your sound system will likely be English faculty or a volunteer—that is, someone figuring it out as s/he goes. This is usually fine, but s/he won’t be able to fix technical problems when they (inevitably) arise. Thus if you show up just hoping everything works, you may end up out of luck—and so will your audience.

So if you’re at a university, swing by early in the day to make sure everything’s set up and working. If you’re reading in a café or bar, ask when you can arrive to soundcheck (they’ll know what this means).

Here’s Your Soundcheck How-To:

  1. Bring somebody with you, turn everything on, and speak into the mic.
  2. Have your partner stand in the back of the room to see if you’re loud enough there. If not, keep talking into the mic and:
  3. Have your partner check the volume levels on the mixer: Find the “Master” volume first (this adjusts the whole sound system – not just your individual mic). Try turning it up.
  4. If it’s up pretty high and your mic’s still too quiet, check the volume of the specific mic you’re using. To do so, trace its cable back to the mixer, so you know which channel it’s in. Then check the “Level” (volume) of that channel. Turn it up.
  5. If it’s up pretty high and you’re still not loud enough, look for the “Gain” knob for that channel, and turn that up. Use the two knobs together until the volume’s good.
  6. If you’re still not loud enough, project your voice! A sound system isn’t meant to let you be mousey. Speak up!

#7: I thought mics just went ON and OFF. Isn’t that all?
At many readings, a mic gets turned on, someone begins speaking, and—end of story. Everyone assumes that whatever sound comes out is just that reader’s destiny.

Thus, behold my great gift to the Writing World:

Microphone volume goes up and down!

And that’s not all! You can even adjust CLARITY!

Check it out: your readings are often ruined not by lack of volume, but by lack of clarity. The mic is loud, but you can’t tell what the reader’s saying.
But that’s just the price of using a sound system, right?

Clarity can be adjusted using your mixer’s “equalization” (EQ). This won’t make up for a shoddy PA, but it might just make your reader sound less like she’s speaking into a tin cup.

Here’s Your EQ How-To:
On your mixer, you’ll likely have 3 knobs on each channel to use for EQ: Low, Mid, and High (or Bass, Mid, & Treble). If your mixer is fancier, go here for more info. Otherwise, 2 basic tips:

  1. If the voice sounds muddy or boomy, turn down the bass knob, and maybe the mids too. If it’s still not clear, try turning up the treble.
  2. If the voice sounds brassy or harsh, or if the “S” sound is hurting your ears, turn down the treble, then try turning up the bass and mids. Play with it! At your soundcheck, keep the reader talking until you get her voice clear.

There should not be a stark difference between the timbre of the speaker’s voice when using the microphone vs not using it. The only difference should be volume.

A soundcheck should only take 5-10 minutes.
If you’re wondering if your reading’s worth this extra time, the answer is yes! If no one can hear or understand you, then the event’s not worth any time. Your written work deserves to be heard, and your audience—which has gathered from god-knows-where—deserves to hear it!

Bonus: WTH is “feedback”?

Soul-tearing horror, that’s what!
Feedback happens when a microphone hears its own sound through a speaker. This begins a loop in which sound keeps being re-amplified, eventually causing the high, loud ringing sound we associate with “feedback.”

  1. Make sure your mic is never, never, never pointed toward a speaker. It should always be behind the speakers. Not to the side, not at an angle. Behind.
  2. If your mic’s behind your speakers and you’re still getting feedback, check the mic’s “Gain;” it’s probably too high. (To make a mic louder, always adjust the mic Level first—then the Gain.)
  3. Stay close to your mic! If you back off, the volume has to be cranked in order to hear you, which can lead to feedback.

The 911: If  it’s starting to do a scary-loud ringing thing, unplug your mic! Doing so will make a popping sound, but unplugging is the best/quickest solution to protect everyone’s ears.

And now… Start talking!

What else do you want to know? Any questions? Suggestions? What did I miss? Any tips and tricks to add? Pictures of poets eating microphones?
Comment away, writers!

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